Been invited to any good holiday parties yet? I don’t mean office demi-celebrations or networking opportunities or stop-by-for-a-second obligations. I talk of true gatherings, long evenings of food, drink and conversation, preferably replicated each year with the same people — people who know you well, and are as undaunted by your new failures as your old successes.
In the first few minutes of the Court Theatre production of “James Joyce’s The Dead” — set during such a 1904 party in Dublin, back in an era when putting on music meant playing it, not streaming it — you find yourself craving such gatherings or (in my case, anyway) deeply lamenting their absence from life.
This may well be the worst title for a holiday show ever — “Let’s go out in the cold and spend some time with ‘The Dead’ for Christmas, darling” — but this interesting, elegiac piece (book by Richard Nelson, music by Shaun Davey) has proven successful for Court Theatre, which is reprising Charles Newell’s 2003 staging, with some revisions, after an absence of many years (although with the same gifted musical director, Doug Peck, at the piano).
In essence, this is a dramatization of one of the stories (a novella, really) that make up Joyce’s “Dubliners.” We watch the events of Missus Moran’s annual holiday party, as narrated by the teacher and writer Gabriel Conroy (the resonant Philip Earl Johnson), who finds that the longer he goes, the less he knows. This musically rich gathering is held on the eve of Feast of the Epiphany, when, nowadays, we are all back at work. Gabriel’s aunt Kate (Anne Gunn) is the hostess welcoming a plethora of colorful Irish characters — all, to greater or lesser degrees, beholden to and confined by their pasts, their physical weaknesses and their ongoing insecurities. There is a reason why the show is called “The Dead.”
Nelson and Davey suffuse the story with music: the score is entirely original, although fans of traditional Irish music will swear they have heard some tunes before. Lyrics are taken either from the Joyce text itself or from other literary works of the era. It is an exceedingly clever and original musical idea. The likes of Mary Ernster and Regina Leslie sing it all beautifully.
Back in 2003, I remember having some issues with this somewhat mannered piece and, in all frankness, time has not dimmed them. To a large extent, this wants to be one of those warm, intimate holiday shows that features lovely music, some entertaining eccentricities of character (Rob Lindley zestfully plays Freddie, an errant Jack the Lad) and a flavoring of poignant wisdom about life. The show is scored for piano, cello, guitar and flute, all played by guests at the party (Suzanne Gillen being especially deft at those dual actor-musician duties). And so it goes for about the first hour of its 105-minute, intermissionless duration. It is the best hour. One finds oneself leaning into the show.
But in the end, “The Dead” moves away from the party and its characters and good cheer and travels into Gabriel’s heart and head as he tries to understand his wife Gretta (Susie McMonagle). And although Johnson and McMonagle are both excellent, the material and the production don’t really know how to go with that change, because the frame of the piece keeps pulling those Joycean human insights back into this room and away from flights of geographic and imaginative fancy, and the longings of yearning. This is a story of contrasts. In the theater, these contrasts are not sharp enough.
The piece is now about a man suddenly aroused by his wife (a good holiday message, for sure) but who finds, alas, that the source of his arousal is, well, not something he necessarily wanted to know. Somehow, the music and the drama needs to take us there, to the full meaning of Gabriel’s unhappy discovery, but the score, lovely as it is, doesn’t sufficiently drive the logic of the narrative, and so the show cannot. “The Dead” starts to feel like it’s moving in ever-looser circles when Joyce was really trying to guide us to the kind of deeper understandings, and more profound sadnesses, that so often emerge at the holidays, when we’re least able to fight back.
Through Dec. 9 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.; 1 hour, 45 minutes; tickets: $45-$65 at 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye